Progress against sectarianism held back by inaction
The new Northern Ireland Part IV:Northern Ireland in many ways is a positively evolving society but the big blight is that it still exists under the shadow of the so-called peace walls – structures that are symbolic of how sectarianism remains a serious social problem, which may take generations to eradicate or at least neutralise.As President Michael D Higgins noted in Belfast recently, sectarianism is just hatred by another name.
There are some 50 walls separating nationalists and republicans from loyalists and unionists, most of them in Belfast but a number also in Derry, Portadown and Lurgan. Most people living either side of the walls want them to remain, according to a University of Ulster study published in September.
Almost 70 per cent living in the Shankill or Falls areas of west Belfast, or those resident in the patchwork of Green and Orange areas in north Belfast, or in other flashpoint areas segregated by these walls, feel they are still necessary because of the continuing potential for violence.
There are, of course, other forms of division: over parades, flags, in education, in housing and, as is still evident in parts of the North, in the general social fabric. For instance, situations prevail in some towns, villages and urban neighbourhoods where, superficially, there are good cross-community relations but nonetheless Protestants shop at the Protestant stores, Catholics at the Catholic stores, unionists have their social outlets, nationalists theirs.
First Minister Peter Robinson and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness are responsible for devising a CSI strategy, ie a cohesion, sharing and integration policy. They certainly talk the talk but so far there is no sign of such a plan emerging from their offices at Stormont Castle.
Robinson, at his party’s annual conference in November last year and on occasions since then, made hard commitments to tackle sectarianism. “There can be no greater legacy than a more shared and united community. It isn’t just good for Northern Ireland; it’s good for unionism too. If we want a better society it can’t be ‘them and us’. It can only be ‘all of us’.”
McGuinness has made similar commitments while senior Sinn Féin member Declan Kearney is involved in a long-running attempt to achieve some form of reconciliation with unionism over the horrors of the past.
Robinson and McGuinness – notwithstanding the occasional DUP-Sinn Féin rows mostly involving more junior party representatives – have been involved in several important gestures: McGuinness meeting Queen Elizabeth, accusing the dissidents of treachery, attending a soccer game at Windsor Park; Robinson travelling to a GAA game, attending Mass for Michaela Harte’s funeral and a GAA game in her memory in Casement Park in west Belfast. That helps and underscores the notion of a Northern Ireland progressively moving away from its bleak past.
Whatever about the normal DUP-Sinn Féin party political tensions, the First Minister and Deputy First Minister work hard to present a united public front, just as did the so-called Chuckle Brothers of Ian Paisley and McGuinness. That leadership by example should not be under-regarded: it percolates down to civic society, sending out a message about how people with different political ambitions can and should operate together on the big issues.